I was reminded of a conversation I once had with the late and great Robert Heilbroner about my book, “Understanding Modern Money”. He warned me that the book was going to scare the living daylights out of readers (actually he used more colorful language—but it was a private conversation, not a public blog fit for family viewing). He went on to explain that money is the scariest thing for most people, sure to result in heated and angry discussion. It is also complex, something everyone talks about but few understand. Hence, it is a topic that must be carefully addressed, and with plenty of reassurances that one is not propounding anything too unsettling. It is also a subject that accumulates more than its fair share of cranks—indeed, “monetary cranks” actually earned an entry in the New Palgrave dictionary of economics. (By the way, most of the “cranks” discussed in that entry actually were less “cranky” than someone like Milton Friedman or Friedrich von Hayek—but that is a topic for another time.) For that reason, new ways of looking at money will (rightly, sometimes) be suspiciously treated.
The reaction to our post on the nine myths also reminded me of an interview Nobel winner Paul Samuelson gave to Mark Blaug (in his film on Keynes, “John Maynard Keynes: Life/Ideas/Legacy 1995”). There Samuelson said:
“I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year, [then] in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say “uh, oh what you have done” and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.”
In other words, the need to balance the budget over some time period determined by the movements of celestial objects, or over the course of a business cycle is a myth, an old-fashioned religion. But that superstition is seen as necessary because if everyone realizes that government is not actually constrained by the necessity of balanced budgets, then it might spend “out of control”, taking too large a percent of the nation’s resources. Samuelson sees merit in that view.
It is difficult not to agree with him. But what if the religious belief in budget balance makes it impossible to spend on the necessary scale to achieve the public purpose? In the same film James Buchanan argues that the budget ought to be balanced except in wartime—and while he does not explicitly endorse Samuelson’s argument that this is nothing but a useful myth, he does imply that there is no financial/economic/solvency reason for balancing the budget. Rather, it is to keep government in check, to ensure it does not grow and absorb too many of the nation’s resources. Ironically, Buchanan’s willingness to deficit-spend in wartime seems to imply that the US ought to almost always run deficits since we are almost always at war with someone. Hence, he seems to advocate nearly permanent budget deficits—no doubt unintentionally. Many might question that position on the argument that if it is OK to run deficits to destroy one’s enemy then it surely makes sense to run deficits to build a strong nation. Indeed, older readers of this blog will remember that our nation got interstate hiways on the argument that this is good for national defense, and that many of us got through college on “national defense student loans”. But that is not really the point I am driving at in this blog.
What I am arguing is that discussion of money and budget deficits has simply reached a state in which it has become impossible to address real world problems. I have always thought that honesty is the best policy—even if the truth is scary—but I am in the education business, not in politics or marketing or religion. But even if we concede Samuelson’s point, that old-time deficit religion is not now useful—even if it might have served a useful purpose in the past.
Yes, government must be constrained. That is what elections and budgeting and accounting and accountability are all about. We need more democracy, more understanding, and more transparency. Politicians need to listen to Main Street—not just Wall Street—before deciding where and how much to spend. They need to be controlled by a budgeting process—whose purpose is not to balance the budget, ensuring tax revenues match spending outgo, but rather to give us some idea of the size of the programs (hence, what percent of our nation’s resources will be devoted to their projects) and, equally important, to hold our leaders and project managers accountable. When managers run over budget, it does not threaten our government’s solvency but it should threaten its credibility. Fraud and over-reach are always a threat where government’s spending is unconstrained. And, yes, too much government spending generates competition over resources, bottle-necks, and even excessive aggregate demand, all of which can generate inflation.
We don’t need myths. We need more democracy, more understanding, and more transparency. We do need to constrain our leaders—but not through dysfunctional superstitions.